Alibi V.26 No.30 • July 27-Aug 2, 2017 

Film Review

A Ghost Story

Minimalist tale of life and death may be saying something, but it’s keeping awfully quiet

A  Ghost Story
“Boo!”

A Ghost Story

Directed by David Lowery

Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

A Ghost Story, the supernatural, emocore, indie oddity from up-and-coming filmmaker David Lowery, is self-consciously arty and aggressively—even confrontationally—dull. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Plenty of independent art house films rely on a languid pace and micro-scale storytelling to relate their narrative. You can’t say much of any import drives the storylines of Richard Linklater’s award-winning Before Sunset films. Kelly Reichardt is considered the modern master of “slow cinema” thanks to her melancholic dramas Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women. Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life) has basically made a long and successful career out of forcing viewers to watch grass wave in the breeze. So is boring automatically bad? ... In the case of A Ghost Story, yes.

Lowery has already assembled a confusing résumé (including the meditative, low budget crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the moody, moralistic Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon). A Ghost Story only adds to the impenetrable, uncategorizable nature of Mr. Lowery (who’s directing a live-action Peter Pan next). A Ghost Story stars Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) as “C” and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as “M.” (Initials? Really? Not as pretentious as naming your characters “Him” and “Her” or “Man” and “Woman,” but close.) Anyway, C and M are a couple living together in a ramshackle suburban home encased in artfully peeling gray paint. He’s some sort of struggling musician. She’s ... I have no idea. They talk about moving but never really seem to get around to it. One day, C dies in an auto accident, one which—fitting to the film—happens offscreen, giving us only the static aftermath to contemplate.

In the morgue a now-deceased C wakes up with a sheet over his head, looking like the sad-sack main character in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Sheet stylishly draped, he wanders morosely back to his home and proceeds to haunt it, more or less. This consists mostly of C staring silently at things. He stares at the walls. He stares at the kitchen table. He stares at his wife—often with equal interest. That’s about the size of it.

A Ghost Story is a spare film in the extreme. The camera goes out of its way to avoid revealing information. It points itself at the wall when people walk out of a room—and refuses to budge. No line of dialogue (there are perhaps a dozen in the entire film) is delivered without pregnant pause. If you cut out the scenes in which nothing moves, nothing happens and no one speaks, the entire film would be about 10 minutes long. In one unedited sequence, a presumably heartbroken M sits on the kitchen floor and eats a pie. An entire pie. Bite by bite by bite by bite by bite. By bite. By my rough estimate, it takes up a tenth of the film’s running time. It’s an intentional torture test on the part of the filmmaker. Can’t make it though this interminable shot? Then you can’t make it through the rest of the movie. Most people won’t make it.

There are occasional hints about the point Lowery seems to be making. It’s a film about loneliness, existentialism and the burden death heaps on both the living and the deceased. At one point C looks out the window of his house and sees another sheet-draped ghost staring out the window next door. There is a certain eerie weight to this semi-preposterous image and to the idea that perhaps all houses are filled with ghosts just waiting for their loved ones to acknowledge and remember them. When you look at it from the point of view of the dead person, most ghost stories go from being horror tales to being sad tales of isolation and regret. But Lowery belabors his theme to the point of absurdity.

C malingers around the house for months until M eventually decides to sell it and move away. And still C sticks around, staring silently at the next inhabitants, a single Hispanic mother and her two kids. Eventually, they leave as well. Months turn into years, years turn into decades. Tenants come and go, the house crumbles to dust, and C finally finds himself at least a hundred years in the future. The empty black eyeholes of his sheet now stare out the window of a high-tech office building. Just as you think things might be wrapping up for poor old C, however, the entire setting loops inexplicably back to pioneer times, leaving our protagonist (not to mention our audience) stuck with another couple hundred years of silent loitering.

It’s as if Terrence Malick set out to make a mumblecore horror comedy with absolutely no horror and nothing resembling comedy (and not even enough dialogue to qualify for a “mumble”). Like some delicate creature kept in a private zoo, this is the sort of film that shouldn’t be allowed outside the rarified air of a film festival. Sure, some may get into the film’s comatose groove and defend its closed-mouth profundity. Lowery is a talented filmmaker. And like an e.e. cummings poem, there is a certain beauty to this film’s minimalism. But the audience for this sort of statue-cum-movie is—appropriately enough—minimal.